It was a strange defence of the Union. Over-scripted and wooden, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, chastised Scotland’s nationalists for “playing politics with the future of our country.” Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, had just announced plans for a fresh independence referendum. London was apparently caught off-guard. But if the best that May can muster is that “politics is not a game”, then Scotland will soon be the world’s newest sovereign state.
Across the North Channel, talks are underway to form a new government in Northern Ireland. They are unlikely to be fruitful. The previous executive collapsed amid a major financial scandal, at one time lauded for being the result of ‘normal’ politics. Even before actual voting in the March 2nd election, politics had returned to tribal normality. Yet, in a shock result, Unionism lost its majority status in Northern Ireland for the first time.
Scotland and Northern Ireland share a deep cultural heritage. Ulster-Scots identity has forged much of what is recognisably ‘Northern Irish’. These bonds were cemented by Union. But the most prescient bond at present, that they are the two nations of the United Kingdom which voted to remain in the European Union, may mean the end of the Union.
Brexit has upended political calculations. Unionists and Brexiteers bat away any talk of danger for the Union. But they ignore three issues driving change.
First is the arrogance of a nativist nationalism which is condescending in its smugness. Second, negative divides abound: whether between people with different viewpoints or between regions, difference is framed in how bad the ‘other’ is. Third, and perhaps the most potent long-term force, is that young people want to live in an open, plural, outward looking society. The UK is no longer that.
In British terms, Melanie Philips gave the most recent example of national arrogance. She is but one in a long line of national chauvinists from Farage to Fox to Foster. Populist nationalists are now household names across Europe. Their success is built upon stressing a national strength which revels in turning away Syrian child refugees and ignores the irony of free trade as the answer to closing borders. It is an inhuman approach that puts greater value on native lives than human lives.
This world view, complimented by the left’s obsession with identity politics, is driving people further apart. People increasingly see the nationality or the ideology, not the person. Civil debate barely exists. As the Economist points out, Owen Jones’s decision to leave social media because of the abuse received is a depressing symptom of our inability to agree to disagree.
Furthermore, regionalism has driven a wedge into a British identity. Scotland is different from Lincolnshire, which is different from London. Past unity is no indicator of future prosperity. Without a positive vision for what the UK is, division will become ever more normal.
Which brings us to the ultimate divide of our times: that of open versus closed societies. Perhaps the greatest driver for the changes which are happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland is that, in the main, people under 40 want to live in places where people don’t care about skin colour or with whom you sleep.
Two decades ago it was easy to identify the UK as an open and progressive place. In a Northern Irish context, the Union worked. Irish society was defined by a national claustrophobia. That has changed fundamentally. Two years ago Irish people voted overwhelmingly to support same sex marriage. Thousands of people under the age of 40 returned home just to vote in an uncoordinated and hugely emotional expression of making sure that Ireland was on the right side of history. The cathartic impact of this cannot be properly expressed. And what was simply a moment in time has, with hindsight, become one of the defining moments of Ireland as a socially progressive, creative, and open society.
Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU speaks to the embrace of being part of a bigger whole. The results of the Dutch elections, with a massive rise in support for liberal parties amongst educated millennial voters, is further evidence that the issue goes beyond the UK’s borders. But, it also highlights the divides between people who want to embrace the world and those who want to shut borders.
Chris Deering, writing before Sturgeon’s announcement, concluded in the Financial Times that “The UK may not see out the decade”. Writing about Northern Ireland’s election results, Fintan O’Toole declared in the Guardian that “a wide crack has opened in the foundations of the UK.” To survive, the Union needs a radical but realistically positive vision. People in Scotland and Northern Ireland need to have an emotional attachment to it. Otherwise, the crack won’t be papered over.